A COUNCIL leader has agreed to crisis talks to head-off a growing row with business leaders over town centre parking.

Traders in Darlington say parking problems are putting off shoppers and threatening livelihoods – and they have now received backing from an independent regeneration body which is calling for action before the town “dies a death”.

Shopkeepers say a lack of loading bays, an excess of yellow lines, too few parking spaces, pedestrianisation and overly-efficient traffic wardens are driving customers away.

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Now the leader of Darlington Borough Council, Bill Dixon, has responded by agreeing to meet traders to diffuse the escalating row.

The dispute comes after debates over parking in Northallerton, Middlesbrough and, bitterest of all, in Yarm, where a row over pay-and-display charges on the High Street led to a referendum on whether the town should leave Stockton borough and join North Yorkshire.

In Darlington, the issue came to a head when florist Rob Metcalfe put up posters accusing the council of creating a ghost town and destroying businesses.

Inspired by his plight, business owner Beryl Hankin, of Guru Boutique, called for a meeting between council leaders and an elected committee of traders.

Cllr Dixon’s agreement to meet comes days after Distinct Darlington, a body that works closely with the council to improve the town, publicly backed calls for a review of parking policy.

Distinct Darlington take a levy from the traders to finance projects associated with the Business Improvement District (BID) scheme, set up to improve the town centre and develop its business environment.

Manager Alex Hirst said: “We would like the council to address parking enforcement, particularly for businesses.

“At present if a delivery driver or a customer can’t find a loading bay space and parks as close as they can to unload or collect items, they are often issued with a ticket without warning.

“Secondly, there seem to be issues with the loading bays in some areas of the town centre - in particular, the quantity and how they are managed.

“More loading bays would help – as would better communication and a more helpful attitude on the part of the parking enforcement officers. “

The organisation’s chair, Nicola Reading, said the council must act before the town centre “dies a death”.

Cllr Dixon said: “I don’t think there are many parking issues in the town centre but I’ve listened to the concerns. That's why I’m meeting with a small group of traders – so I can get my head around what’s happening and how to put it right.

“I’m surprised at Distinct Darlington because they have regular meetings with us and we have people on their board – I don’t know why they didn’t approach us directly.”

“The tragedy of it all is that within a year, we will have the answer to this. We’re going to have 650 extra pay on exit spaces in a multi-storey car park. We would just ask for the chance to deliver it.”

Last year, Middlesbrough introduced free two-hour parking in its main shopping car parks in a bid to entice more visitors, although the experiment has since been scaled back.

In Northallerton, two-hour free parking on the High Street was withdrawn last month in an attempt to free up more spaces for shoppers, although some traders claim it may have reduced footfall.

Meanwhile a bitter row over the introduction of pay-and-display parking charges on Yarm High Street rumbles on, with protesters organising a referendum calling for the town to leave Stockton and join North Yorkshire.

Meetings between Distinct Darlington, the traders and Cllr Dixon are expected this week.